Capsule Reviews

"Inverted Utopias: Avant-Garde Art in Latin America" If you go to this exhibition expecting to see works by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, you'll be disappointed. By emphasizing important but perhaps less familiar artists -- indeed, many of the works on display have rarely, if ever, been shown in the United States -- the exhibition makes the argument that Latin American art has played a more central role in the vanguard of 20th-century art than it's gotten credit for. Curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea and filling every spare inch of the Caroline Wiess Law Building at the MFAH, the show comprises more than 200 works by 67 artists. But it isn't a survey in any sense of the word. Instead, "Inverted Utopias" focuses on the two periods when the avant-garde really was avant -- the '20s and '30s, and again in the '50s and '60s -- and is arranged into six "constellations," thematic groupings that show artists from different generations together. The constellation is a rich organizing principle. As you move from grouping to grouping, connections are made between themes, practices and generations. "Progression and Rupture" includes Uruguayan Joaquín Torres-García, who first appears in "Universal and Vernacular," but also Lygia Clark (1920-1988), a Brazilian conceptualist almost two generations younger. She also appears, with very different work, in "Touch and Gaze" (most of that constellation, by the way, is interactive -- yeah, that means you get to play with the art). There's so much more in this groundbreaking exhibit -- Julio Le Parc's mesmerizing light murals; Cildo Meireles's playful subversion of your senses in Eureka/Blindhotland (1970-1975); Antonio Berni's wonderfully hideous Sordidness -- than there is space here to consider it. It's not often that an exhibition makes you rethink what you know about art, but "Inverted Utopias" may just be that rare event. Through September 12. 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300.

"Olafur Eliasson: Photographs" Olafur Eliasson presents a world with a quietly powerful, contemplative and fascinating beauty. For his exhibition at the Menil Collection, he's taken photos of Iceland and grouped them in grids, creating series of images and recording his movements though landscape -- over a trail, down a river. He creates what are essentially portraits of the natural and man-made phenomena he explores: chunks of intensely blue glacial ice, boulders, broken stones, bridges. Portraits of rocks may sound boring as hell, but his carefully examined presentation makes them fascinating. Nature's incredible variety is a patently obvious concept, but Eliasson explores it without heavy-handedness. You go through the same process of discovery he did in taking his pictures, editing them and grouping them together. The path series (1999), a grid of 24 photographs, depicts lush green grass worn away to reveal rich, dark earth, footsteps embossed in a line in the snow, and a trail burnished into a desolate stony field. It's a record of different landscapes and a document of the artist's walk through his environment. And what a strange environment it is. In The moss valley series (2002), a grid of 16 large photographs records sections of rocky, moss-covered earth. The undulating carpets of dull green look like NASA shots of an alien landscape. They're beautiful and just a little bit creepy. The landscape series (1997) has some lovely images, but the scenic shots aren't as compelling because they're not as specific as his other investigations. Eliasson's work is at its best when parameters are more closely defined. Through September 5. 1515 Sul Ross, 713-525-9400.

"Parallel Stories: Brazilian & Venezuelan Abstract-Constructive Art 1950-1970" Sicardi Gallery has been putting forward a strong series of exhibitions, showing work by luminaries of the Latin American art world. Its present show explores optical phenomena. And this fascination with altering the ways we see is as intellectually intriguing as its results are spectacular. Jesús Raphael Soto's animated construction Escritura negra equilibrada (1977) is made from a black panel painted with white vertical lines and hung with a curtain of black wire forms. The wires are like lines liberated from the page; floating in space, they become a drawing in the air as they move vertically and horizontally, curving and arcing. Carlos Cruz-Diez also plays with our optical perception, in paintings that layer vertical sections of plastic or painted cardboard. The images shift as you walk past them; you see a different set of colors and images from an oblique angle than you do standing directly in front of it. It makes for a pleasant optical blur. The effect is not unlike those lenticular images that suddenly turn Jesus into Mary as you walk past. But Cruz-Diez's works are the opposite of kitsch. He is a purist with image-free work that's all about color and optical effect. There are good early examples of this technique on view at Sicardi: Physiochromie n. 17 (1960) and Physiochromie n. 103 (1963). Reproductions don't do any of this work justice; you have to see it in person. Through August 14. 2246 Richmond, 713-529-1313.

"Perspectives 142: Boys Behaving Badly" Chloe Piene's short film about a boy in his undies, Little David, is projected onto a wall at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The boy tromps around the grass, flailing about in an imaginary fight with an invisible adversary. "I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em, I'll squish 'em," he says, using words taken from letters written to the artist by an incarcerated pen pal. "I'm a barbarian." By slowing down the video and putting a murderer's words in her subject's mouth, Piene has shown us how all little boys can be demonic. The work is unique in the way it flip-flops a cliché: Rather than showing us how all murderers were once little boys, Piene has shown us how all little boys could be murderers. CAMH's literature states that the exhibition "features work that explores the clichés, isms and myths surrounding adolescent male behavior." Too bad many of the other pieces -- like Jen DeNike's wrestling adolescents or Pia Schachter's death-metal guys with a sensitive side -- just wind up being cliché. On the other hand, with his obviously staged photos of skaters, knights, vikings and bullies, Olaf Bruening takes clichés and amplifies them to the level of parody. And Anthony Goicolea does an exceptional job exaggerating, and thus unmasking, typical clichés of male adolescence. In Porn, four clones of the artist himself hang out in a tackily rustic room, watching a kinky lesbo love scene on the television, eating Oreos and drinking beer. One of them signs a cast on the leg of another, writing things like "fart-head," "penis wrinkle," "fuck you" and, of course, "get well soon." Through September 12. 5216 Montrose, 713-284-8250.

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